BY RENEE KAPLAN
To talk about the ubiquity of voyeurism these days is about as perceptive as talking about the popularity of, say, cell phones or Britney. We all know we’re in a Reality Life moment, in which the repackaged lives of real people is now the most popular form of entertainment. First it was the lavish interiors of celebrity homes, as narrated by the nasal drawl of Robin Leach in the 1980s. Now it’s the 24-hour surveillance of Florida co-eds who live in a house full of Internet video-cams, for anyone to pay to see.
A current exhibit at the Fogg Museum takes a refreshingly chaste and dignified approach to its own voyeuristic display. Called “Goethe/Grcic: Quotidian Objects,” it is the product of a quirky conceit. Konstantin Grcic, a prominent German designer, was asked to organize an exhibition from the huge collections of the Goethe National-museum in Weimar, which contains about 50,000 objects collected by the great German writer. Grcic selected 63 particularly personal items, nearly all of them banal, everyday, even — one might have presumed — discardable objects: buttons, old inkwells, a left-hand mitten. There is a real, inchoate thrill in just knowing that all of these objects were part of Goethe’s intimate life: This is the voyeurism part, the pleasure of knowing a dead icon through the proxy of the things he touched and used.
Grcic also designed the cases which hold the objects, and they indulge the sense of illicit voyeurism. The cases are gray boxes covered in glass, with lids propped up half-open, as though the objects weren’t really meant to be viewed. A snaking tube of little white lights connects the cases and evokes the bulb-lit signs over of the seedy theaters in old Times Square, where you walked in off the street and stole a quick, nasty peek. There is a sense of quietly violated intimacy as viewers contemplate the things that Goethe owned and touched. But the exhibit also makes a quiet, eerie commentary, not so much on Goethe himself, but on the whole idea of keeping and wanting objects at all, and how it is we value them.
Why, in fact, do we care about the random ephemera in this exhibit? There are a few particularly revealing items included, like a pair of black leather boots, a bamboo walking stick. But the majority of the items displayed are the more generic, functional objects of everyday life, like marble paperweights and small storage boxes, things that could have belonged to anyone. We care, of course, because they belonged to Goethe, a literary patriarch and a sacred German hero — a celebrity. One case holds a small, empty matchbox-size container made out of now-dirty cardboard. Isolated and illuminated under glass, Goethe’s dirty little box looks just like a dirty little box, and quietly subverts the whole notion of the scientific display. It mocks the idea of the pre-conceived sanctity of whatever it is that is on display under glass. Though the case might have been Goethe’s, it is no less dull or unspectacular, it is no different from our own clutter. It might make you wonder what your clutter says about you, or it might make you question the value of the 49,000 other objects archived in the Goethe Museum in Weimar, or the objects in archives anywhere.
It also makes you wonder about the strange ritual of fetishizing objects simply because they did belong to someone famous. Somehow the historical fact of reknown — reknown for whatever reason, whether for great literary merit in Goethe’s case, or the pop-star fabulous merit of any of today’s celebrities — seems to infuse the object with the same supernatural value with which we deify our celebrities. Each of Grcic’s carefully selected and encased objects becomes a kind of reliquary, enshrining a piece of hero for worship — while simultaneously mocking the whole ritual of object worship as we find ourselves peering down on a rusted ring of keys and a random string of marbles. The cases adjacent to the dirty little box contain a shoebuckle, an s-shaped crumb brush, a drinking cup and its case. Ordinary, prosaic objects.
Now, more than ever, with the advent of global exchanges like eBay, there is a market for these things. EBay not only supplies the demand for already valued arbitrary objects, but actually creates new demand by simply making it possible to put up for sale items that were, once upon a time ago, utterly unsellable. Because the means now exists to photograph, classify and label them — to exhibit them — they suddenly have marketplace value, free advertising and most likely, a ready consumer. It raises the question of the arbitrary power of the exhibit to instill value. In many ways, the objects exhibited on Ebay are no different from the objects in this exhibit, and that is Grcic’s point, too: that Goethe’s clutter was no different from our own, that he kept the same box of discarded bent nails that we all hide in the back of the kitchen drawer, that Goethe was, in many ways, a commonplace mortal like the rest of us.
Which begs the question, then, of the value of our clutter, our collections. Why do we value certain things over others? Why did we care so much about stickers in the fourth grade? And why does collecting wine or vintage handbags seem like a better proposition now — and why can’t I trade you my old scratch’n’sniff for the 1979 Saint Emilion? There are obviously complex economic answers to these questions, but the deliberate whimsy and arbitrariness of Grcic’s selection of objects gets at the much more essential question of whether there is there such thing as an intrinsic value to objects at all. With case after case of single ordinary objects, a box, buttons, a jar lid, a neatly-rolled belt, the items become just a series of geometries in a case. Squares, and circles, and cylinders within a cube. There is the creepy sense that, on some level, that is all any of the products in our profligate consumer culture really are — just a bunch of squares and circles and volumes.